Friday, July 21, 2006

Just Collateral Damage

So has anyone else been troubled by world events lately? Away from the constant crises in far off places it is strange to do things like shop at Target. It is also weird trying to think of “newsworthy” items for Art or Idiocy? Things like the director of the Smithsonian, Lawrence M. Small, being declared unfit to serve by Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley, on The Art Newspaper register. But still seem rather trivial as a new crisis in the Middle East escalates.

I don’t know about others, but that has been what I have mainly been focused on. Not the terrible opinions, though. With all the “experts” offering their ideas, not one seems logical. It is also kind of troubling to become accustomed to living in crisis mode. Not the constant fear of terror attacks the republicans encourage to win votes, but that uneasy feeling when you are buying groceries, and you are thinking of the images of Beirut blown apart. “Over there” they are shelling eachother, and “over here” I am trying to decide which type of lunchmeat to get and what to put on my art blog. But now we are so used to holding those two concepts in our consciousness at the same time that you pause a minute and carry on.

I have also been thinking about the crisis of war, especially in terms of art, since beginning to read The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas. The detailed accounts of museums and collections all over Europe being mobilized and carted around during WWII are unbelievable. Places like the Louvre seem eternal, so to read detailed accounts of the Mona Lisa being carted off, or the Winged Victory being roller coastered down a wooden track are stunning. The collection of England’s National ended up in a slate mine in Wales. In Spain Las Meninas escaping mortar and heading to the hills. Perhaps most compelling is the photograph of a niche; in it a wooden, casket-shaped frame containing a rolled up cylinder, held tight by a large screw. It looks like maybe some bilge pumping system on an old sailing ship. It is actually Rembrandt’s Night Watch, removed from its stretchers and rolled up.

The book contains account after account of museum staff escaping with priceless treasures of art. Unfortunately along with Nazis looting everything that didn’t find safe passage. It makes me wonder about today, what sort of policies and strategies museums have for the crisis of invasion. Clearly things went horribly awry in the case of the Baghdad Museum recently. I wonder how museum staff today would react. Imagine America suddenly becoming so unsafe that you are fleeing for your life. What do you do with all your stuff? All the art you own? If you leave without it, the pieces will be destroyed, looted, sold or simply disappear. Or the museum you work at will be destroyed by bombardment. How do you organize the evacuation of an entire collection? How do you know which pieces to save, and which to risk leaving behind?

Press clipping about the damage inflicted on the Tate Gallery in 1940 from the Tate website

Take for instance the Art Institute in Chicago. If America were to face bombardment by enemies, North Korean ICBMs for example. Chicago would be a major target. Kim Jong Il wouldn’t say, "wait, don’t bomb Chicago, it is third place in a contest where only 1st and 2nd count, just hit NYC an LA." No, all the major cities would be bombed. So how would a painting like La Grande Jatte be taken to safety? It is never moved do to its fragility. Or imagine a missile striking the warehouses where all the art not on display is held? Add to that concerns that contemporary works present, much more difficult to quickly move than a painting. At least Sol LeWitt wall drawings only need to have the instructions, you could carry that in a folder in your bag. But what about the Robert Smithson mirror and rock piece? These are the very real scenarios playing out at cultural institutions in Israel, Lebanon and what is left of Iraq.


Lisa Hunter said...

During World War 2, many of the Met's treasures were carted off to the Vanderbilt mansion in North Carolina. It had space and climate control and -- key point -- was close to a railroad. I've often wondered since 9/11 if it's wise to have so many of the world's art treasures in Manhattan. Sure, museum exhibits are important, but couldn't the stuff in storage go somewhere else?

Lisa Hunter said...

Oh, and if you want to read the "happy ending" to The Rape of Europa, read Hector Feliciano's fabulous book The Lost Museum. His investigative journalism single-handedly raised the issue of returning Nazi-looted art to heirs. Nothing was done for 50 years until his book came out. It's really all because of him and his advocacy. I recommend his book most highly.